Tradition has it that the incoming president or chairman of a professional engineering institution gives an address that focusses on personal past experience and how this relates to their theme for the coming year.

The new chairman of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Railway Division, Richard East (left), bucked this trend at his recent presentation by concentrating his message entirely on the future of the rail industry, as seen through engineering eyes.

A career railwayman since 1977, he has witnessed a multitude of changes both in business organisation and technology through the intervening 39 years. This, perhaps, enables him to predict more realistically what the future holds and compare this against some of the wilder public pronouncements made in recent times on how the railway will evolve.

Growth challenges

Rail growth has to be aligned with demographic predictions: the UK population could reach 80 million by 2066 but GDP growth is less certain. Whilst passenger numbers have doubled since 1982, what will they be in 50 years? The age profile of the population will increase, which will mean a change in travel demand – less commuting, more leisure journeys, avoidance of crowds, more mobility impairment.

In addition, the freight situation has taken a knock with the decline in coal but will there be other elements to take its place?

And how will the railway industry plan for all this?

Richard believes that, in the future, significant factors will be the cost of travel, journey time and train loading, all linking into capacity and resilience. Already, it is noticeable that operating near to capacity reduces resilience – when things go wrong, the knock on effect is far worse.

Despite predictions elsewhere, ETCS Level 2 will not significantly increase capacity. Only with Level 3 and the advent of moving block will there be any real gain.

Technology comparisons with the road sector, where autonomous vehicles and hands-off driving are forecast in the foreseeable future, lead some to believe that train platoons and convoys could become possible but, even if true, that is many years away.

Future-proofing of trains will be needed – a 40 year life is likely to remain but with periodic updates to take account of technology advances. Bi-mode and electric trains are all part of this, but the downside is that improved flexibility increases weight.


Not always well understood, sustainability might be defined as “managing the resource base of our generation for those of the future”. Rail is, potentially, a sustainable, integrated system and sits well within the three ‘pillars’ of sustainability – social, environment and economic.

Already, new legislation for locomotives is having an impact – the last Class 66 freight locomotive, now non-compliant, has been delivered. Multi-engined locos are emerging – the DB Class 245 and the repowering of the Class 73 electro-diesels are part of the process. Just where the next generation of DMUs for the UK will come from is an unknown.

Electrification continues to have many advantages – reduced train weight, energy savings, improved performance, no emission at the point of use, regenerative braking and the opportunity for flexible energy sources that could be fully renewable (as in Sweden). All make for a good business case, despite the high cost of infrastructure provision.

The economics for sustainability have to be linked with franchise conditions. The use of new materials should be encouraged in order to produce a more efficient product – a plastic bogie frame is already undergoing acceptance and service trials.

Even the recognition that obesity in society is having a detrimental effect, and the drive to make walking and cycling more prevalent to improve the nation’s health, may be part of this process.

Fuel availability

Analysis of gas and oil production indicates that this has reached its peak and will be well on the decline by 2050. The unit cost will increase and greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide will worsen health issues unless something is done. Whilst this is a global challenge, the rail sector is well positioned to set an example.west-outer-electrification-christmas-2015

Energy recovery comes in two categories. One includes external factors, such as the avoidance of rheostatic braking and the use of regenerative practices, as well as storage of energy by means of batteries, super-capacitors and flywheels to allow for intermittent electrification. The second category includes internal factors such as self- powered electric trains, hybrid options such as fuel cells or small diesels, although these do imply a weight increase, and flywheel retarders.

None of these are blue-sky thinking and examples exist currently, either as prototypes or in limited service. In the future, more effort will be needed to get these initiatives accepted as common practice.

Train control and protection

This represents, perhaps, the most difficult path into the future. People are making lots of optimistic assumptions but there have been many examples of problematic projects in the recent past.


The goal of interoperability is the right way forward, but both the processes and technology to achieve this have been fraught with difficulties. The ERTMS vision is a good one, but the objective of getting more capacity will only really be achieved when ETCS Level 3 becomes a reality. This, in turn, brings other challenges as, without conventional train detection equipment, how will the integrity and length of freight trains be assured?

The European approval process takes far too long, caused perhaps by the insistence of some countries to maintain existing operating rules. Couple this with the trend to always make pessimistic assumptions – braking curves modelled on the worst case, traction performance understated, probability of  applications not optimised – and one can see how hard it has been to implement successful systems.inside-david-shirres-120920-094745

The vexed and expensive question of how to retrofit rolling stock continues to be a dilemma, caused, in part, by the many component parts and interfaces needed for the on-train equipment, but also by the down time needed to perform the installation. Dare it be suggested that finding a way of economically fitting heritage rolling stock, even steam engines, might yield some lessons as a generality?

The fact that many of the ERTMS elements contain ageing equipment technology is an ever-present threat; GSM-R in particular has communication limitations and its 2G specification is becoming obsolete. The use of packet switching (GPRS) to increase the data flow to trains is at last becoming accepted, but even that has been an uphill struggle and is only a short term fix.

The future generation of rail technical managers will need to map out a way forward, but avoiding the mistakes of the past will need to be uppermost in people’s minds. They should start, perhaps, with an agreement on standardised operating rules, which in turn should lead to easier driver interfaces and training.

Train communications

Modern trains are awash with on board data, much of which needs to be communicated to and from the shore. This includes:

» Remote train preparation instructions, such as heating, air conditioning and ventilation;

» Passenger facilities – reservations, information systems including train running updates, Wi-Fi enabling, head counting, seat occupation;

» Condition monitoring – train performance and status;

» Advice to drivers – failure notification both for on board systems and elsewhere on the planned journey;

» Event reporting – on-board incident assistance, interrogation of associated CCTV recordings;

» Maintenance planning.

Much of this is currently available but is not assembled in any standardised format, which makes it difficult for operational staff to manage within the fragmented infrastructure and train company structure.

With all this data comes the increasing risk of cyber security attacks, especially if systems are wireless connected. This is recognised as a complex technical issue and requires constant and rigorous testing. Using experience gained by the military will prove useful and some comfort may be taken that government circles are now taking this threat very seriously – a DfT guidance document was issued in February 2016.

The digital railway

Much is being made of this high profile initiative within Network Rail. However, it must not become just a project to improve line capacity and modernise train control. In truth, the other elements of the plan may be more vital and easier to implement.

The journey experience for travellers has to be all-important. If a train is going to be cancelled, it would be good for passengers to know what the alternatives are before actually leaving home. Even en route, when problems occur, updates need to be given on the impact of any delay and whether alternative journey options can be offered.

To give this level of serviccabunite will require much better train running data to be available across a wide area. This should come with TMS (traffic management systems) coupled with C-DAS (connected driver advisory systems) integrated with information from outside of the railway.

Non-UK Rail Experience

In recent times, Richard has worked in Denmark on its nationwide ERTMS project. This has proved very valuable, not only in understanding just how difficult this project will be to implement, but in getting enlightenment on how things are tackled elsewhere. He believes that the UK does not have all the answers and must be prepared to actively seek out lessons from schemes that have met with difficulties. The railway is a global industry and the mass of communication that exists on the internet should be used by younger engineers to understand the latest perceptions and technology that is being deployed across the world.

Richard’s advice to all engineers is, when the opportunity arises to work overseas, take it and learn from it. This does not mean having to emigrate (although many have chosen this path) but be positive towards short to medium-term assignments. Getting a Eur Ing qualification will have increasing recognition as time passes.

The recent vote by Britain to leave the EU is interesting and will bring both risks and opportunities. It is to be hoped that the engineering community’s links with Europe and elsewhere will continue to yield strong co-operation and friendship.

The challenge ahead

Richard East has had a long and varied career in which he has gained invaluable knowledge and experience. Many of the topics raised in his Chairman’s address are not new, in fact they appear regularly at conferences and in magazines. Looking at it through an engineer’s eyes maybe gives a different slant.

Many in the engineering community often cringe at statements made about how technology will transform capacity, reliability, cost reduction and suchlike. Everything is possible, but in the rail industry, with its huge safety implications, a degree of realism is needed and Richard was able to give this.

One obvious question is where the directing mind will come from to steer all this to fruition. There is no easy answer; certainly there has to be strong input from government via the DfT but, to do this, the necessary expertise has to be on board. Network Rail has to be in the equation, as does the RSSB and the ORR, but how to pull this together into a single concentrated direction remains a challenge.

The Professional Engineering Institutions should be able to provide the means of co-ordinating new ideas that emerge from the rail industry from within the rail operating companies, the supply chain contractors and academia. The IMechE has expertise in all transport modes and has recently produced reports on freight operations and carbon assessment. Working with other Institutions involved in the rail sector will always be treated with positive enthusiasm.

Written by Clive Kessell